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Susan Rothenberg. Photo: Koos Breukel.

Susan Rothenberg (1945–2020)

Painter Susan Rothenberg, whose equine imagery countered the dominant Minimalism of the 1970s by infusing it with representation, has died at seventy-five. The news was confirmed by Sperone Westwater Gallery, which has shown her work since 1987. Discussing the emergence of her best-known symbol in a 2005 interview with Art21, Rothenberg said: “When I stumbled on the horse, I went, okay, this can be my Jasper Johns flag, this can be nothing to me because I don’t like horses. I can draw a line through it, make it flat . . . negate painting as much as possible in terms of illusionism, shadow, composition.”

Rothenberg was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1945 and graduated from Ithaca’s Cornell University in 1967. After college, she briefly attended the Corcoran School of Art (now the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design) before decamping for New York, where she would meet her first husband, sculptor George Trakas, and collaborate on dance works and performances with Joan Jonas. Around 1973, Rothenberg began making the paintings for which she is best known—large, figurative images of single horses in motion, set against empty backgrounds often bisected by a central vertical line. Critic Peter Schjeldahl, reflecting on her first solo exhibition at 112 Greene Street in the September 1993 issue of Artforum, deemed the show a “eureka.” He wrote: “Her palpable effort was fantastically poignant, carrying the charge of something half-forgotten and so wonderful I could hardly believe it: sincerity.” These horse paintings, which made an immediate impact on New York’s art scene, led to Rothenberg’s inclusion in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1978 exhibition “New Image Painting” alongside Jennifer Bartlett, Neil Jenney, and Robert Moskowitz. She and Trakas divorced the following year.

In 1980, Rothenberg was chosen as one of the artists who would represent the United States in that year’s Venice Biennale. Over the course of the decade, she moved away from painting horses and began creating images of disembodied heads, hands, and eyes. She married artist Bruce Nauman in 1989; a year later, they moved to a ranch in Galisteo, New Mexico, where the couple took to raising horses, chickens, and dogs. Rothenberg’s canvases from this period, now rendered in oil, are painterly, formally adventurous evocations of imagery recalled from memory and quotidian life.

Surveys of Rothenberg’s work have been held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (1983); the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo (1993); the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1999); and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (2009). She was awarded the Skowhegan Medal for Painting in 1998. Former president Barack Obama collects her work: 1976’s Butterfly was on display in the White House’s Treaty Room during his administration. Rothenberg’s paintings are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; and many other institutions.

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